Paris (AFP)

Curiosity is its engine. The light its red thread. The French-Norwegian researcher in physico-chemistry Thomas Ebbesen, author of pioneering discoveries in the field of nanosciences, was awarded Wednesday CNRS gold medal 2019.

This award, one of France's highest scientific awards, will be presented on October 24 in Paris.

"I am very moved to receive this medal, I did not expect it at all," said AFP professor, head of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Strasbourg (USIAS), after having directed the Institute of supramolecular science and engineering (ISIS) of Strasbourg from 2005 to 2012.

"This recognition of the French scientific community affects me a lot," says Thomas Ebbesen, born in Norway 65 years ago and has just applied for French citizenship.

Interdisciplinary, her work in nanoscience covers areas such as the sciences of carbon materials, optics, nanophotonics (study of light and its interactions with matter at nanoscale scales) and molecular chemistry.

His discoveries have allowed "technological breakthroughs in optoelectronics" (combining optics and electronics) for optical communications and biosensors, says the CNRS.

"Light is a constant in my life," he notes.

Born on January 30, 1954 in Oslo, Thomas Ebbesen was not predestined to be a scientist. A mother painter, a military father. In 1960 he was transferred to the Norwegian NATO delegation; the family moved to Paris.

Little Thomas already likes to understand how things work. At six, when he has just been offered a watch, he hastens to dismantle it to see the mechanisms.

- Small holes -

After the baccalaureate, he joined the Norwegian merchant marine to discover the world. He returns with the desire to study and enrolls at Oberlin College (Ohio), where he can combine the study of arts and sciences. "I was thinking of being a photographer".

In the end, it is physics combined with chemistry that seduces the student. As a young Japanese, Masako Hayashi, became his wife and the mother of his two daughters.

Graduate of this American college and the French university Pierre and Marie Curie, Thomas Ebbesen obtains a PhD in physical photochemistry in 1980.

After his thesis, he returned to the United States before settling in Japan in 1988. He works in a laboratory of NEC, the giant of electronics, where he has "a lot of resources and freedom".

In 1996, Jean-Marie Lehn, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, persuaded him to join him to set up a new institute, ISIS in Strasbourg.

Thomas Ebbesen says he likes to "work on the frontier of knowledge, as an explorer would discover a new country". "There is a beauty in what we learn then".

"I was lucky to discover a new optical property at the nanoscale" (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter).

It all started in the late 1980s, when he saw that the light managed to pass through small holes of nanometric size (drilled on a metal plate) while these are smaller than the length of wave of visible light. A bit like a man "trying to go through a keyhole".

It will take him eight years of work to find the explanation of this optical phenomenon, beautifully titled "extraordinary transmission". "I am curious and perseverant," he says.

"But the most exciting thing is what I'm doing right now." He is interested in "hybrid light-matter states". With his team, he demonstrated that chemical reactions can be accelerated and decelerated by using the electromagnetic fluctuations of an optical resonator. And that we can select a given product.

The researcher thinks this discovery "will have a very big impact". For example "to help the production of drug molecules" and "reduce their cost of manufacture".

Member of several academies including the French Academy of Sciences, he has received numerous awards, including the Kavli prize for nanoscience in 2014.

? 2019 AFP